History is being rewritten. A game-changing court case involving Kenyan victims of the violence during British colonial rule is calling the history of the British colonial time into question. Not only is the British government on trial for the atrocities committed in its colonial past in Kenya, but the case also opens the door for dozens of other potential cases against the British government from other parts of its former empire. Harvard professor of history Caroline M. Elkins played a key role in finding and organizing the evidence that helped the Kenyan claimants win their historic hearing at the High Court in London this past summer.
Nearly 60 years ago in colonial Kenya, the British placed thousands of Kikuyu people in detention camps to stop the Mau Mau insurgency, an anti-British rebel movement. The British colonial government tortured, maimed, or executed 90,000 Kenyans between 1952 and 1963. Three elderly Kenyans recently pressed charges against the British government for their treatment in these camps and won the right to a full trial, positioning them to get an official apology from the United Kingdom, as well as financial compensation.
For the case, Professor Elkins condensed her book “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya” to 80 pages of archival evidence. In presenting these pages in the first ruling, the judge stated that there was enough evidence of systematized, British-inflicted violence for the trial to go forward. Her research team then began to distill the 300 boxes of files that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office claims to have found in January of 2011—weeks before Elkins was to submit her first statement, she recalled.
“The 300 new boxes of files validate the claims I made in the first book,” Elkins recalled. “I then spent a year working with the Harvard students here on privileged access to 20,000 pages in the found files.” One of the most telling files, she said, explains the way in which documents were classified or destroyed. The “Watch and Legacy System” that the British had in Kenya divided files into two categories. “Watch” meant “destroy” or “return to London” (files that would embarrass the government). “Legacy” files were those that the British deemed of historic value—what they wanted their perceived legacy to be.
Elkins described her job during the hearing this past July as “minute-to-minute” advising on the case. “It is high pressure for a historian to be told to put together these documents on a daily basis to counter the British government in court.”
Now that the case may be settled, the claimants feel as though they are getting some form of justice for their suffering. Until this trial, Elkins said, victims were silenced, even though “the British government was sitting on the evidence that would show they are telling the truth.”
“One of the reasons the British government has fought this case is that it is a precedent-setting one,” Elkins explained. The recent ruling that time limitations didn’t apply for this case opens the door for cases against the British government in other former colonies. “There is a very accepted narrative that the British government was very successful and fought wars with minimal bloodshed. That is not the case,” she said.
But the case has implications for more than just the British colonial legacy. “It is very unusual that our work as historians has such real-time impact on individuals, the subjects that we are writing on, really shifting the way in which the world thinks about something,” Elkins reflected. She noted that Bush-era policy on counter-insurgency appears to be based on British policy in the colony of Malaya, which had also set the precedent for Kenya. “It wasn’t about minimum force. It was about using systemized violence to promote the civilizing mission,” she said, adding that we can see similar patterns emerging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and potentially in Iran and Syria.
Although currently on sabbatical working on her next book, Elkins anticipates that the course she teaches on British colonial violence will be greatly changed based on the new evidence presented in this trial. “Empiricism is the lifeblood of history, but what do we do when the evidence is gone? How do we piece it back together?” She indicated that this intellectual conundrum will be integrated into the course. “There is never a semester that goes by whereby I don’t learn new things myself. I am looking forward to that generative learning process because in terms of my own work as a researcher, writer, and teacher, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.